South Africa has a strong history of protests and resistance. From the early days of Apartheid through to current protests against rape culture, the presence of colonial-era statues, and the rising costs of tertiary education, women have been at the forefront of protests. Now it appears as if a new trend has emerged in more recent rejections of the status quo — the decision by protesting women to strip partially naked in the face of riot police, and the glaring eyes of the media and the male-dominated society.
In a country as deeply patriarchal as South Africa, where bare breasts have traditionally only been accepted as part of a cultural ceremony, or solely for male pleasure, many did a double take when images of women protesting topless made it into mainstream media.
This is not a local phenomenon, however. Historically, women have used their nudity to protest a wide range of issues. These range from animal rights violations, to war, land rights and even modern political issues such as the U.S. Presidential elections and Brexit.
As bare breasts have been sexualised in most countries around the world, including South Africa, feminists have long known there are few things more powerful and important than their own bodies in the fight against oppression and patriarchy. As a result of this, many women have pushed to desexualise the breast and female body. One spin-off of this is the increasing prevalence of topless protests in countries throughout the world.
A group called FEMEN, founded in the Ukraine in 2008, is perhaps the most vocal organisation to use nudity to protest injustices. They’ve staged topless protests around the world, and have branches in Ukraine, Poland, Zurich, Italy, Israel, Brazil, Russia, Bulgaria, the United States, Canada, Germany and Tunisia.
South Africa’s history of women protesting topless is more recent. It rose to prominence in 2016, when students at Rhodes University in Grahamstown spoke out bravely against rape and rape culture on campus.
Just a few weeks after the topless anti-rape protests, the much-publicised Fees Must Fall movement took hold at universities around the country. Students speaking out against the prohibitive costs of tertiary education stopped classes and protested on campuses. Many women joined the frontline of these protests, with some of them stripping down or protesting bra-less.
The bold statement about the power of a woman’s body, and the deeply ingrained patriarchy that is still prevalent in South Africa, raised divided opinions from government officials, celebrities and on social media.
Some police officials spoke out against the women, claiming it to be an act of public indecency, and suggesting a breakdown in morals and parenting were behind the women’s decisions to put their bodies on the line.
Prominent members of society attempted to belittle the women, remarking on the physical appearance of the breasts and again suggesting that breasts existed purely for male pleasure. Others involved in the protest claimed that women stripping bare before fully armed riot police stole the spotlight, derailed the greater cause and delegitimised the original message of the protest.
Although many of the comments about women protesting topless in South Africa have been critical of the actions, others claim that this is precisely the point. Even though the women who participated in the topless protesting may have been speaking out against issues not directly linked to feminism, the protests served to further justify the need for deep introspection about the patriarchy still so prevalent in the country.
And ultimately, in a country where women are often on the receiving end of South Africa’s most difficult injustices — be it the economic, criminal, social or political — there can be few more powerful ways to show resilience and take back control than this.